An adventure of an album: Josh Ritter returns to Asheville with ‘Sermon on the Rocks’

Photo by Laura Wilson

Once a song is written, recorded and released to the world, it takes on a life of its own. “Not to sound like a hippy,” says singer-songwriter Josh Ritter, “but it doesn’t belong to [me] anymore. … It’s like knowing your kid is out there, having fun.”

Ritter, who returns to The Orange Peel on Wednesday, May 18, has one biological child and probably hundreds of sonic children. The latter have appeared on TV shows, film trailers and movie soundtracks, and at least one from Ritter’s most recent release, Sermon on the Rocks, has found an unusual place to land. The album’s single, the breathless and semi-Footloose-themed “Getting Ready to Get Down,” was discovered by a country line-dance instructor named Cef, who released an instructional video on YouTube set to that track. Ritter’s friend Doug Rice used Cef’s footage for what became the band’s official video.

And though Ritter has yet to see the choreography performed at a concert (Asheville fans should get on this), “it was so incredible to me that the music had found its way into this whole form of dance,” he says. “It’s so ironic because I’m terrible at dancing. I’ve got no rhythm.”

In fact, Sermon on the Rocks is a rhythmic tour de force, from the smoldering prophesying of lead track “Bird of the Meadow” and the lithe, thumping “Henrietta, Indiana” to the joyful hoedown of “Cumberland” and the swinging, vintage-tinged finale, “My Man on a Horse (Is Here).”

Ritter recorded the album in New Orleans, a plan that came together when he realized, “I could make this record anywhere. It felt like an adventure of a record, and I really wanted to have an adventure.” The musician — whose fans include Stephen King, Cameron Crowe and Rainn Wilson — says he gets many brief, 10-hour glimpses of towns as he passes through, “and New Orleans has always been such a tantalizing 10 hours. I realized I would love to spend two weeks there. And it really happened — my family and my band, we all just picked up and went to New Orleans.” The record was produced by Ritter with Trina Shoemaker, who previously worked with producer Daniel Lanois at his famed Kingsway studio in the French Quarter.

“I didn’t want to make a New Orleans record, but I did want to swim in the bloodstream a while,” says Ritter. “When you’re in a special place that jazzes you up and gets you going, it can only come out in the music. It can only help.”

There is a kinetic energy to Sermon on the Rocks — an electric charge of biblical themes, thwarted fundamentalism, wide-open space and the literary characters and storylines that Ritter is known for. “Song ideas kind of accrue, whether its a line or a musical something,” says. “There are rare occasions when everything comes together at once, and those songs are always really special to me. [But usually I’m] kind of collecting puzzle pieces over time, and that feels very different that constructing paragraphs in blocks.”

Ritter is also an author — hence the paragraph analogy — having published Bright’s Passage. He’s reportedly at work on a follow up novel. But even with his interests in prose and — more recently — painting, songwriting remains Ritter’s primary passion. “There’s so much less that’s said and so much more for the listener to fill in,” he says of the craft. “In terms of story songs, there’s only so much you can say.”

He compares it to harmony vocals, which, he says, he’s often in favor of leaving off a record. The reason may be surprising: “I like to make up [harmony vocals] when I’m in the car listening to people’s stuff. That’s where it’s at. If you fill it all in, it’s not as much fun to sing to.”

He adds, “I feel the say way with details in songs. Too may details weigh it down.”

One detail that does weigh heavily on the effervescent artist: How to respond to the passing of House Bill 2 in North Carolina. Ritter says he gave it a lot of thought. To cancel his performances in the state, he decided, would be to punish his N.C. fans. By playing, “I could donate money to the effort [to repeal the bill],” he says.

Either was a tough choice and, while Ritter respects artists like Bruce Springsteen (who called off his dates in response to the bill) and Brandi Carlile (who plans to use her N.C. concerts to show support for the LGBT community and “make a joyful noise in the face of this insult of a law”). Ultimately, Ritter says, neither stand “changes the fact that it’s a hateful and unkind law.”

But Ritter’s performance is likely to do more good than he realizes. His songs are full of hope and inspiration. “When the oracle spoke to me she was like a roadside song,” he sings in “Homecoming” — the video for which is a collage of hometown photos submitted by his fans from around the world. “Do unto others as you would have them do / Even if in turn they do you wrong.”

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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